The U.N.’s Human Rights Rituals

April 16th, 2003

When is human rights abuse not human rights abuse? When the U.N. Human Rights Commission is discussing it — or so it seems, judging by that august body’s 59th session, now taking place in Geneva. Founded just after World War II and chaired in its early years by Eleanor Roosevelt, the commission meets but once a year and its tasks are manifold. Over the years, the commission has acquired, among other things, a working group on arbitrary detention, a special rapporteur on the right to education and a special representative on internally displaced persons. Some 3,000 people gather in Geneva for the annual meetings; the commission has issued mandates to investigate 38 countries for human rights abuse.

That’s the official story.

The unofficial story is the series of annual rituals that have come to characterize the commission’s meetings. One of these is the condemnation of Israel. This year there were four such resolutions, one of which passed 50 to 1 (the “1″ being the United States) and another of which passed 51 to 1 (ditto). Another ritual is the condemnation of the United States. Last year the other members actually kicked the United States off the commission. This year the United States is back on, but Syria was unable to resist putting forward a proposal to discuss “U.S. war crimes” in Iraq. Nor would any commission session be complete without an organized campaign by China (this year’s is so far successful) to prevent anyone from saying anything mildly unfavorable about anything the Chinese government does.

It is tempting, of course, to blame the country chairing the commission — Libya, that widely known defender of human rights — for its many foibles. But the European Union and the United States aren’t exempt from blame, either. As of yesterday, there was doubt as to whether the United States would even vote in favor of a watered-down condemnation of Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. The preservation of our relationship with Moscow seems, at the moment, to matter more to the Bush administration than telling the truth about that ugly war. By the time you read this, on the other hand, we may already know whether the United States has succeeded in passing a stronger resolution on Sudan — keeping up the pressure on a country that has lost more than 2 million citizens in a civil war with massive human rights abuse — in the face of a somewhat inexplicable, possibly oil-industry-related, possibly merely mischievous French-led attempt to defeat it.

It is not just the politics of the world’s dictatorships that distort the U.N. human rights debate, in other words, but the politics of the world’s great democracies as well. And does it matter? “No” is the easy, short answer: The U.N. Human Rights Commission long ago equivocated itself into moral obscurity and, as a result, lost whatever credibility Eleanor Roosevelt bestowed on it 50 years ago. But the longer, more complicated answer is, unfortunately, “yes”: These sundry resolutions, declarations and rapporteurs matter because they matter to the people involved. It may all be a political game to us — or to the French — but to the Russian or Sudanese governments, any U.N. statement that absolves them of blame for civilian casualties in their respective wars will help legitimize those wars in the eyes of their own people as well as foreigners’, and allow them to continue. Worse, the constant abuse of human rights rhetoric by Western democracies will render it meaningless over time. Most of the world rolls its eyes when we talk about human rights in Iraq. And no wonder: If we fight bitter diplomatic battles to avoid anything that sounds like a condemnation of Russia in Chechnya, we can’t expect to remain credible everywhere else. If France engages in the diplomatic equivalent of guerrilla warfare to avoid sending a human rights investigator to Sudan, no wonder “the West” has gotten such a bad name too.

There’s no doubt that it’s an Alice-through-the-looking-glass world in Geneva. None of the people who created the U.N. Human Rights Commission in the 1940s ever expected its resolutions to be used to justify wars against civilians. Yet that is precisely its tragedy. Although it operates in farcical semi-obscurity, the commission’s decisions have real impact on real people’s lives. On the basis of resolutions made for ludicrous or cynical reasons, wars may be stopped and started, regimes will come and go — and people will live or die.